Goethe’s​ best-known books are quite portable: both parts of Faust, Italian Journey (which points travellers in the right direction, Sicily), The Sorrows of Young Werther (with which the most disparate readers identify all too easily) and, for those of us who can declaim it in German, the sinister, compelling Erlkönig. But Goethe complete is immense: the ‘collected works’ in twelve volumes contain the prose and poetry, but the scientific, autobiographical, historical and other non-fiction, poetical, prose and dramatic writings (with Faust listed separately as schrank or closet drama, to be read rather than performed) fill 143 volumes in a current German edition.

The immensity did not deter Wei Maoping, the dean of the School of Germanic Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, who announced in 2015 that all of Goethe would be translated, guessing that the total would come to thirty million characters in forty or fifty volumes. Where did the money come from? Shanghai International is one of China’s ‘Double First Class’ universities, intended to become world-class by 2050. But in the meantime there are 36 Class A and six Class B universities that outrank the Double First Class group and get more funding, too. To conquer Goethe, Wei must have recruited every qualified Chinese Germanist and translator there was, with only a few supplied by his own staff. An academic in the West, in a similar situation, would have slipped some fundraising hints into the grand announcement, but Wei didn’t – the reason being, I suspect, that he has a paying customer: Xi Jinping, probably the only world leader who knows Faust by heart.

Xi, born in 1953, is the son of Xi Zhongxun, once chief of the party’s propaganda department, member of the Central Committee, and from 1959 vice-premier under Zhou Enlai. In 1962, Xi Zhongxun was accused of supporting an anti-party clique (the worst form of treason) because, as the party’s de facto publisher, he had signed off on the publication of a quasi-fictional and hagiographic biography of the war hero and martyr Liu Zhidan by Li Jiantong (who was married to Liu’s brother). Kang Sheng, the head of the party’s internal security and intelligence apparatus, chose to read the book as an attempt to dispute Mao’s eminence. Liu Zhidan was the Communist chief of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi when Mao arrived there at the end of the Long March in October 1935. Liu claimed overall command, clashing with Mao and his Long March veterans, but lost the struggle and departed. Xi Zhongxun had been Liu’s deputy but did not follow his leader, instead siding with Mao (after a brief delay). Given Mao’s pronounced capacity for suspicion, it is unlikely that Xi ever fully won his trust.

When, in 1959, Liu Shaoqi replaced Mao as chairman of the People’s Republic and sidelined him to put a stop to the murderous famines of the Great Leap Forward, Mao needed someone to knock down to show his strength and return to power: Xi Zhongxun was a target of opportunity. (Liu Shaoqi’s reward for saving tens of millions from starvation came in 1967: arrested, publicly beaten by Red Guards, imprisoned and kept alive only to be exhibited at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, where the gentlemanly Zhou Enlai proclaimed him ‘a criminal traitor, enemy agent and scab in the service of the imperialists, modern revisionists and the Kuomintang reactionaries’. Liu died soon afterwards.) Mao’s momentary political need had immediate consequences for the young Xi Jinping: he was thrown out of the family’s mansion in the verdant Zhongnanhai leadership compound with its cooks, drivers and bodyguards, into a small, comfortless room where his mother, Qi Xin, and her four children huddled together.

After trying to atone by self-criticism and the obedient acceptance of ritual humiliation, Xi Zhongxun was demoted to deputy manager of a tractor factory in Luoyang, once a Tang dynasty imperial capital and now a metropolis, but at that time a very grim place. Having been punished as an individual, with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 the elder Xi was brought back to Beijing to be punished again as a former member of the party elite: there is a photograph showing him with a placard listing his sins. He was driven and pummelled and kicked down the street with his wife walking alongside to hit and curse him as a revisionist traitor. She must have been convincing: although she was repeatedly beaten during this period, she was not imprisoned, nor did she spend six years digging ditches in Inner Mongolia like her daughter Qi Qiaoqiao, nor was she driven to suicide like Xi Jinping’s half-sister, Xi Heping. Unlike many others, the elder Xi survived the ordeal and was not left crippled, but he was imprisoned or otherwise confined until 1975 – when he was sent to another factory in Luoyang, but allowed to rejoin the party. Mao’s death in 1976 improved things for him but he was not fully rehabilitated until December 1978, when he was sent to Guangdong as a party leader and political commissar. He started the then controversial ‘special economic zone’ experiment in the township of Shenzhen, now an industrial and high-tech metropolis of twelve million people.

All that was in the future when in 1968, having been taken out of school in Beijing two years earlier, Xi, aged fifteen, was made a victim of Mao’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement, whereby educated, urban youngsters were sent to rural China ‘to learn from the people’. Others in Xi’s position could still count on powerful parents or relatives to ensure they would be sent to relatively salubrious villages, where at least one local contact could provide some help. But Xi started so high up that he needed to be taken down more than most. He was sent to work in Liangjiahe, a miserably poor mountain village of windowless cave houses in a barren landscape of deforested hills in northern Shaanxi. It was there that another teenage exile lent him a copy of Faust, which Xi read again and again till he knew it by heart, as he credibly boasted on meeting Angela Merkel.

Xi made his own Faustian bargain not merely with the Communist Party but very emphatically with Mao’s party: he has been assiduous in restoring Mao’s authority, which his predecessors had cumulatively reduced – a few months ago, reacting to the intensified confrontation with the US and its allies, Xi enjoined the study of Mao’s clever but prolix lectures from 1938, On Protracted War. He constantly elevates the man who jailed and publicly humiliated his father, terrorised his mother, caused the death of his half-sister and imposed many years of acute misery on his siblings as well as himself (the celebrations of his devoted service in Liangjiahe never mention his desperate flight and forced return).

What does it mean that China’s president, party secretary-general, Central Military Commission chairman and ‘core leader’ is a Faustian character? Probably nothing: psychologising explanations for present or past political decisions rarely add much. But if Xi is a consciously Faustian character, it would be possible to adduce personal turmoil in explanation of the sudden escalation of violence against Vietnam and India, the unprecedented diplomatic quarrels with Canada, Sweden and Australia, and the intensified confrontation with the US, as well as the sharply increased repression of Hong Kong, the Tibetans, Uighurs, Kazakhs and previously immune Mongols, and of China’s Christians – all of which occurred in the plague year of 2020.

The translator of Xi Jinping’s Faust, Guo Moruo, was a consciously Faustian character himself, though his own, widely accepted claim was that he was China’s Goethe. He wrote poetry in different styles, fiction, historical drama, history and philosophy, as well as translating a dozen Western classics (probably from the Japanese he learned while living in Japan over two decades), Beijing opera librettos and autobiographical monographs: the complete works come in 38 volumes. And, like Goethe, Guo was also a government official; he was the founder and first president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and of its subsidiary University of Science and Technology, and the chairman, convenor or patron of countless committees and commissions.

I met Guo in September 1976. I was supposed to be going to Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang, sponsored by Marshal Ye Jianying, the minister of defence (who was also busy organising the coup that overthrew the Gang of Four on 6 October 1976), but Mao’s death had stranded me in Beijing. With no professional meetings laid on and little to see – Beijing even now is no Rome; tourists run out of worthwhile monuments in three days – I was visiting the two surviving antique shops in Liulichang when my German-speaking companion, one of the few accredited foreign diplomats in Beijing, offered to arrange a visit to China’s Goethe.

It was passing strange to meet Guo Moruo at his Qing dynasty pavilion among precious antiques, with a pair of hovering domestics, when Beijing was still in full Cultural Revolution mode, with only a few trucks and fewer cars on the streets along with myriad bicycles and hand-carts, and drying cabbages crammed on the balcony of every apartment, without which most people would have had nothing green to eat till spring.

Guo had earned his outlandish luxuries twice over: first as a dedicated Communist revolutionary since 1927, through the civil war and the Japanese occupation, and the second time by successfully manoeuvring to survive the Cultural Revolution. His exceptional prominence – no other artist or intellectual in China came close – required exceptional self-abasement. When they came for him, he had a self-critical text ready for distribution: it declared that all his writings were objectively counter-revolutionary and should therefore be burned, thus obviating any need to amend or correct them one by one. That brilliant move was only the start. Guo further mollified his accusers by widening their net, as many others did as well: he denounced his closest friends and colleagues as counter-revolutionaries, ensuring that they would be treated very harshly or even killed. Finally, having repudiated all his earlier writings, Guo produced new poetry and prose in fulsome praise of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, while avoiding bourgeois sentimentality by remaining silent when the Red Guards persecuted two of his sons, Guo Minying and Guo Shiying. They refused to denounce their friends and colleagues and instead killed themselves in 1967 and 1968 rather than suffer further tortures.

Guo’s campaign was amazingly successful. While Xi Jinping’s father did not regain official favour for sixteen years, enduring physical abuse as well as imprisonment, Guo was singled out for praise by Mao within a mere three years of the start of the Cultural Revolution (at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969), the prelude to his installation in the mansion where I met him, a personal gift from Mephistopheles. Xi Jinping, too, still incessantly praises Mao, without pausing to mention the deliberate massacres and deadly follies whose victims exceeded both Hitler’s and Stalin’s in number, or the cruelties visited on Xi’s own family. His purpose in defending the man is evidently to defend the legitimacy of Mao’s once repudiated system of absolute power, which he now wants for himself.

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